The Sandman (notes)

The last post expressed some key disappointments (and a few things I liked) about the Netflix adaptation of The Sandman (1989-1996), a widely respected, much loved, graphic novel series from writer Neil Gaiman (and numerous artists). Once I started writing that post, 2000 words came easy, but I never got to most of the notes I had.

I have three pages of said notes, so I figured I needed a follow-up post. I’m not bothering with any plot synopsis, so if you aren’t already familiar with the story and the adaptation, neither of these posts — especially this one — will make much sense.

Suffice to say, the show has its fans, but I’m not among them.

A bit of history to kick things off. Back in 2019, when I posted about Thor and The Avengers, I wrote that:

The Sandman, a series by Neil Gaiman, is a great example of what comics can be without all that nonsense. I’m looking forward to seeing what Netflix does with it. Gaiman is involved, so it stands a good chance of being good. (Good Omens was excellent!)

I’ve since come to think, especially after reading Gaiman’s Neverwhere (1996), that Good Omens (1990) may owe some of its excellence to co-author Terry Pratchett (my favorite author of all time — a literary genius in my eyes). My favorite work of Gaiman’s is American Gods (2001), and while it’s good, it lacks the magic of Good Omens (which is awesome).

Just last month I wrote that:

I’m antici-dreading the Netflix adaptation of The Sandman (2022). I’m of the opinion that live-action adaptations of animated stories are bad, but Sandman was a comic, so there should be more latitude (to not fail).

But, alas, my dread proved right, and my anticipation was disappointed. More than ever, I think live-action adaptations of comics and animated shows are a mistake.

I watched The Sandman last week. Five episodes Saturday night, and the remaining six in pairs Tuesday–Thursday (because two at a time was all I could take; then I had to go watch something good to calm down and clear my mind).

The siblings known as the Endless. Top row, left to right: Death, Destiny, Dream, Destruction, and Desire. Lower row, left to right: Despair and Delirium (formerly Delight). Only Death, Dream, Despair, and Desire, have appeared (and only briefly) in the TV series so far.

I didn’t take notes on Saturday, so these begin with episode six (“The Sound of Her Wings”see previous post). Some notes recall the first five episodes, though.

As written, with annotations, here they are (notes are bold or italic full sentences):

§ §

Pacing & low energy. The first thing I noticed, and a common complaint even from those who generally liked the show. Everything is very portentous and sedate.

Death (& Lucifer) suck. Horrible casting choices, especially Lucifer. Sidenote: Dream is Black to Nada. Why isn’t Death white to white people? Death: Bone white pale rider.

Gregory! (CGI budget?) They killed him off almost immediately. In the novel, he’s Cain’s pet throughout. A very minor character, but fun. OTOH, the CGI was pretty bad.

Dead man should be young. That old Jewish guy. When Dream and Death first enter the scene, the old guy makes the one little cough — code for “dying man”. (And never coughs again.) Sidenote: “Sweet” but why? Death says she thinks the old guy was “sweet”, but since the dialog that establishes that is only in the comic, there’s no justification for the line (which is also from the comic, a result of that conversation).

Dark edges in some shots. Make that many, many shots. WTF? It has something to do with the camera lens. I occasionally see it in TV shows, a curved darkness on the left and right edges. As if the wide format was too much for the lens. It happened throughout this series, and I could spot no logic or intention behind. Super distracting.

Hob Gadling sequence was good except the friends bit. It was better done in the comic because it stood alone and wasn’t wedged into Dream’s return. It would have been stronger if done as in the comic (where Dream does return the next year).

Patton Oswalt as Matthew. OMG, a horrible casting decision. Talk about utterly destroying the mood. (And I generally like Oswalt, but not in this.)

Johanna Constantine. She is in the comic, but so is John Constantine, a much more established character. Who is absent from the TV series. And Joanna was strictly 18th century. Here they’ve allowed her to be ageless. Played by Jenna Coleman, a former Doctor Who companion, which I found distracting (too modern and perky to make a good Johanna Constantine).

Female Collectors. It’s not that women never are serial killers, but it was kinda funny how the “cereal” convention had so much representation. They even made sure to include a female killer (The Good Doctor) in one of the supporting roles.

Barnaby and Clarice (expletives deleted). Both are evil (and old) in the comic, but here only Barnaby, the white male, is straight up evil. Yet Clarice, the white woman, is merely his abused pawn.

No Eve? We got Cain and Abel, Gregory (briefly) and Goldie. And Matthew. No Eve? They cut a woman’s role? Kind of the woman’s role? (That said, she’s a rather minor character in the novel.) But what a great opportunity for a woman of color.

The Wise Black Woman. They’re leaning heavily on that trope. Dream is thoroughly schooled by both Lucienne and Gault. (And where did Gault come from? She was invented for the TV series.)

§

Dream’s voice should be modified. In the comic, a distinctive touch is how Dream’s word-balloons are black with white words and edges. The shape of the balloon provides additional emotional notes. Some other characters also have distinctive word balloons (all of the Endless; Matthew; probably others I’m not recalling). I would have done something with Dream’s audio.

Gault. WTF? Wants to be a nice dream? As just mentioned, another Wise Black Woman to school Dream. Not part of the original story. Shoe-horned in. Supposedly a nightmare, but she wants to be a nice dream. Whereas the white Corinthian wants to go on killing.

Ken Doll! Ugh. I dunno. I guess he is a reflection of a modern man, but ugh. Just ugh. The whole point of Barbie and Ken is their (apparent) ordinariness. If Ken is an ordinary modern man, it’s a sad testament (Barbie, of course, seems more normal).

Lyta Hall. They squandered her full arc from the comic but managed to keep all the unlikeable aspects of the character. For instance, she wants Rose Walker to destroy Dream despite the danger to all of reality. She’s actually deeper than depicted, and I’m not sure the TV series realizes she’s actually one of the antagonists.

Barnaby. $8000? Not $800? I listened to the line several times, and admittedly my hearing is truly awful, but it sure sounded like “thousand” not “hundred”. But the subtitles said $800 (and so does the comic). In any event, the character is a caricature of evil abusive white guy.

Despair. No cutting? No rats? Key aspects of her character, but I guess too much for Netflix? Not sure why. They’ve gone way past that in other shows. One of many places they seem to have wimped out. The casting makes her seem more petulant than in despair.

Hal. Denatured! No trannies? We never see Hal in drag except when he performs. In the comic she prefers to be known as Wanda and is usually dressed as a woman. TV series wimping out again? I did like the character. He was at least interesting. Speaking of wimping out, they made Chantal and Zelda, the spider women, cute and silly, not mysterious.

Rose’s dream. Style over substance. Or intelligence. Lack of imagination. I really hate modern film and TV writing. Really, really, really.

Lucienne is the smart one. Played by Vivienne Acheampong, both a gender and race swap from the comic’s Lucien. The wise Black Woman who schools Dream to the point of almost becoming his partner in Dream. Lucien’s defining characteristics are how tall and skinny he is and his love of his library (which has every book written or unwritten; not unlike Borges’s The Library of Babel). I don’t really have a problem with the gender or race swap (although someone tall and skinny would have been a treat). I do object to making her better than Dream.

Rose fights in alley but runs from fatso. Raced with a mugging and possible rape, she’s more than willing to fight back, but faced with being killed by Fun Land she merely cowers in fear. Because.

§

Best char is The Corinthian. (Dream is good, too.) But of course. Because they’re generally faithful to the source. Except they’ve castrated Dream a bit.

“People only use your name when you’re in trouble.” A line used at least twice. It’s pure bullshit. They also use your name when they love you. Or just like you. Or just because. Kind of canonical advice to use people’s names to help connect with them.

Dream: SNAG! [sigh] I hope I live long enough to see us outgrow this stage and allowing masculinity to be okay again. I’ve long been a supporter of women and POC, but I want the playing field leveled at its highest level. If elevating means diminishing anyone, I am vehemently not onboard.

The cat animated story was fun. But I wonder if they missed the point of the story. Which is about the power of human imagination. Instead, they played it as just cute. I also noted that the Blue Point says she chose her lover. It had nothing to do with being in heat (as in the comic). I guess women get full self-determination even if they’re cats.

Bezoar. No stink? It’s mentioned in the comic, and it makes sense. Not even a wrinkled nose in the live-action version.

Avoiding conventional beauty or masculinity. Because these things are outmoded now, I guess. It’s very noticeable in the TV series. (I mentioned Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer, the fairest of Angels. This Lucifer has more in common with Brienne of Tarth. Not an Angel.)

No rape scene. Not that I wanted it. It’s the first thing Madoc does when he obtains Calliope, and it’s an oft repeated offense. If you know the story, you can see where it’s vaguely implied (sort of). I just find it interesting the significant parts of the story they cut. Modern sensibilities and trigger warnings.

“Whoosh” Sound of sifting sand would be better. It’s the sound Morpheus makes when he appears. Kind of a standard magical sound effect. Lack of imagination.

So unimaginative (e.g., Calliope walking away after she’s released). She just walks off down the street. They couldn’t come up with anything more interesting?

Seems some confusion about locks wrt Calliope. If she’s bound by ancient law, why does she need to be locked up? With not just a lock but also an external sliding bolt? Later, Madoc, while talking on the phone, just walks away leaving her door open. [See general notes below.]

Subliminal confession by the writers? Madoc, clearly presented as a smarmy evil man, is an avid proponent of Strong Female Characters, and he’s shown on the phone insisting that the film version of his novel contain 50% women and POC in both cast and crew. Which seems exactly like The Sandman adaptation (and other modern shows). Is this a sly easter egg? Are the writers secretly agreeing that this forced wokefulness in modern writing is evil? (I’d love to think so, but it may just be bad writing. They didn’t realize the implication of that character taking that position.)

§ §

A major issue I have for both the comic and the adaptation (and often fantasy in general) is the utter lack of rules, rhyme, or reason. Gaiman’s Neverwhere really bothered me that way. Most superhero stories suffer from it, too.

The problem, of course, is that fantasy is a form of (pleasant) bullshit. It’s ultimately utter nonsense, and very few writers take the time to first define the rules of their reality. (This is one reason I like hard SF. Can’t get away with that as easily there.) It’s a problem throughout the series, but one I especially noticed in the Madoc/Calliope story.

§ §

The Sandman TV series seems to want it both ways. Huge swaths of it are very faithful to the comic, including long bits of dialog. It gets the form right. Often by just copying.

Yet it also makes major character and story changes, mostly (as far as I can tell) in the name of wokefulness, not in the name of storytelling. Obviously, nothing in the story required the changes. They were motivated solely by social concerns.

As such, gender and race swaps amount to a form of tokenism. They don’t exist because the story demands it, they exist due to a perception of a social duty.

Whatever else one might say about that, the fact is this detracts from storytelling. It stands out and breaks the immersion. A well-written story can carry the weight, but here it only made me more aware of the flaws.

§

Bottom line, if you’re gonna swap casting in established roles, then you need to write a great story. But better to write an original story aligned with your vision than corrupt an existing one to serve it. The only greatness here came from what they copied from the original.

I stick with my Ugh! rating.

Stay unadapted, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

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